In Praise Of Cities

As someone who lives in New York and Auckland, I spend most of my time in cities. A lot of you live the same experience. Half the world’s people now live in cities – often big cities. There are 428 metro areas on the planet with more than a million inhabitants. The top 10 of that 428 are Tokyo, Mexico City, Seoul, New York, São Paulo, Mumbai, Delhi, Los Angeles, Jakarta, and Osaka.

The city is one of the big organizing ideas of the 21st century. It’s turning into such a big idea that countries are being sidelined by the mega-trend of urbanization. I live in New York, not the United States. China for many of us is Shanghai’s hinterland – since 1992, foreigners have invested over $100 billion in the city.

Look at Singapore where a disciplined approach and ambition brings global results for a tiny island nation. At Bilbao in Spain. A dying port town until it had the dream of becoming an international art center through Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim. Dubai where no dream is too huge and where nothing succeeds like excess.

Last week, I was talking to the people who run Wellington. This is a small city on a beautiful harbour in New Zealand. The capital of the country, it is considered by many to be one of the best places in the world to get a great cup of coffee – I kid you not! The city is headed by a very sassy mayor, Kerry Prendergast. Kerry is a radical optimist. Smart and lively, she is determined to make Wellington a Lovemark. Everywhere.

Kerry had asked me to talk about how a city so far from the centre could make an international splash. My message was to remember that most great ideas come from the Edge – and that was certainly where they were! I challenged them: are your goals big enough? Wellington may top ‘contentedness’ in lifestyle surveys, but what did the city dream of becoming? Without big shared dreams, cities (like people and organizations) are stuck in the status quo. In the early 1990s, Saatchi & Saatchi Wellington came up with the idea ‘Absolutely, Positively Wellington’ for the city. The idea was embraced by businesses and citizens alike and became a tremendous source of pride and optimism. It still captures exactly the attitude Wellington and any other city needs if it wants to be loved.

I love cities, love the bustle, love the way they force you to rub shoulders with people of all shapes and sizes. The countryside is fine but there is only so long you can go without a good cup of coffee.

ABOVE: Video coverage of presentation to Wellington City Council (4 April 2007)

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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